Farewell to Kenneth Waltz
Yesterday via The Duck I learnt that Kenneth Waltz has passed away. Waltz is a central figure in international relations theory, Theory of International Politics can be considered the founding text of the contemporary discipline. There are some tributes (including my own) and a pair of anecdotes/excerpts that illustrate Waltz’s independence of mind and his knack for pithy insight.
I remember sitting down to read Theory of International Politics as a Masters student, already broadly but superficially familiar with neo-realism from an introductory undergraduate course. At this point I was naively, arrogantly confident that theorists I didn’t agree with could easily be pigeon-holed and dismissed as either dogmatic methodological individualists, naive empiricists, or sophists playing word-games. Waltz fell into none of these categories: Theory of Politics is a rigorous, philosophically sophisticated framework for the analysis of international relations. Striving to establish a parsimonious account of international relations as a bounded realm governed by its own structural laws, it draws on microeconomics, Durkheim and Newtonian physics. Like most everyone else in the discipline, I also believe that it is wrong on many of its major points. But everyone who has attempted to think systematically and rigorously about the international system subsequent to Waltz has had no other option but to engage with him. It’s for this reason that even radical critics such as Rosenberg have acknowledged their debts to Theory of Politics.
In engaging with Waltz, scholars of international relations have subjected Theory of International Politics to innumerable criticisms. Many of these criticisms, which often consist of pointing out that Waltz’s theory ignores X or Y, were misconceived. The most convincing interpretation of Theory of Politics, that of Goddard and Nexon, sees Waltz as putting forward a ‘spare account of the dynamics of anarchy’ within a bounded sphere of international politics. This account is offered by Waltz, not as a description of the world as it actually is, but as an idealised framework to enable explanation of particular events against a baseline of expectations. The more serious criticisms, therefore, were those that accused neo-realists of sleight of hand by equivocating between methodological and substantive claims (i.e. outlining a model and then treating this as an accurate description of reality). In addition, arguments from social theorists and historical sociologists have put the validity of this sort of approach into question. Mann, for example, argues that it is impossible to convincingly separate bounded spheres of social life from one another and identify autonomous ‘system-logics’ of such spheres.
Nonetheless, much of the most interesting and insightful contributions to international relations theory – such as those of Cox, Buzan, Little, Rosenberg, Spruyt and Ruggie – have been direct responses to Waltz’s opus. The engagement with Waltz is one of the few things that gives International Relations any kind of coherence as an academic discipline. It is impossible to understand contemporary International Relations without a familiarity with Waltz’s work and for that reason he is sure to be studied for a long time to come.